It felt like slow motion when Caleb Love picked off a pass from Florida State’s Wyatt Wilkes deep into the second half of Saturday’s 94-74 blowout victory for the UNC men’s basketball team.
The sophomore guard streaked down the court alone and lifted off from the paint. With his eyes glued to the basket, Love gathered the ball midair and cocked his arm back.
A wild windmill dunk didn’t fall, and Love went crashing to the ground. Florida State took the ball right back down the court and drained a 3-pointer on their end as the crowd in the Dean Smith Center quickly quieted down.
“I caught a flat," Love said. "I caught a flat tire."
Love made up for it on the next possession, draining a 3-pointer of his own without hesitation.
That’s just the Caleb Love experience. He rarely loses confidence in his ability, even through the recent slump in which he made just ten of his 40 field goal attempts over three games. On Saturday, he broke the skid with 18 points, six assists and a career-high six 3-pointers.
When asked about Love’s missed dunk and subsequent three, head coach Hubert Davis couldn’t help but laugh.
“In all seriousness, that’s one of the many things I love about Caleb,” he said. “He can bounce back. He can move to the next possession, next play, next shot.”
It almost seems paradoxical. Love’s unwavering belief in himself and desire to make big plays happen have both helped and hurt UNC at different points throughout this season. When it comes to basketball, Love prefers to take risks, even if it means occasionally biting off more than he can chew.
That approach hurt the team when Love missed a gimme basket in a crucial moment against Louisville, opting to try for a tomahawk slam instead of a simple lay-in. UNC eventually squandered its 10-point second half lead and had to grind out a close overtime win.
But it was that same mindset that won the game against Clemson on Tuesday, when Love’s exceptional pass through traffic set up graduate forward Brady Manek for the game-winner under the basket.
Love seemed to ride the energy from his game-winning play right into Saturday. He drained the first shot he took, a 3-pointer on the wing just over a minute into the game. Minutes later he put the exclamation mark on an 18-0 start for UNC — a transition three from the same spot on the court.
Love still struggled to score inside, all eighteen of his points coming from behind the arc. However, the game seemed to flow naturally through his and fellow sophomore guard R.J. Davis’s ball movement.
The pair flexed their floor vision by combining for 11 of their team’s 22 assists. They made pinpoint accurate passes, particularly under the basket, to set their teammates up for easy baskets.
“We all just bought into playing together,” R.J. Davis said. “We were able to share the ball.”
It was an impressive showing for the Tar Heels’ backcourt after a spiritless performance in last weekend’s blowout loss against Duke. It was especially a relief for Love, who had been waiting to break free of his recent poor shooting performances.
“It was great,” Love said. “I told myself that this was going to be the game I get out of my slump.”
So, will UNC’s backcourt be able to propel the team through the end of the regular season and into March?
It’s a widely held belief in college basketball that quality, experienced guard play wins championships, and this up-and-down team sitting on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament field won’t get many more second chances going forward.
But when the Tar Heels do find themselves in a do-or-die situation a few weeks from now, look to Love to make — or not make — something happen.